Death of a Monk
Drummer Roger Johnston of The Monks, far right, in the studio with bassist Eddie Shaw and organ player Larry Clark, during the recording of Black Monk Time in 1966. The surviving Monks play a reunion in Spain this weekend with Minneapolis's Adam Fesenmaier on drums, November 19-21, 2004.
Thomas Edward "Eddie" Shaw remembers Roger Johnston:
Roger Johnston, drummer for the Monks, died on November 8, 2004, in Bemidji, Minnesota. Born in Texas, on December 26, 1939, he served in Germany in the U.S. Army before becoming a member of the Monks, one of the groups who played the Hamburg scene in the 1960s, breeding ground of the British Rock Invasion and rock music as we know it today.
Roger played a unique style of drums, known to the Germans as "Uberbeat," a minimalist tribal sound, easily identified by anyone who has heard his sound. With The Monks, he was a pioneer of the early punk influence, the first reaction to the British sound, also bred in Hamburg.
Contrary to how he played music, Roger was a humble, quiet, sensitive person who rarely talked about his life as a drummer. He was an avid reader of books who liked to discuss ideas. This year, The Monks agreed to play two reunion shows, one in Las Vegas, the other in Spain. Roger was ill, but pleased that The Monks would perform. Next week The Monks will perform in Benidorm, Spain, where the three-day rock festival will be dedicated in memory of him.
On the Monk website, one his fans puts it well: Roger Johnston, drummer for the Monks, died Monday, November 8, 2002. It is a sad day for rock and roll. Play on Roger.
The Monks (with Roger Johnston, center) on the harbor wall in Hamburg circa 1966.
Interview with a Monk: "They Called us the anti-Beatles"
In September, 2003, I taped a conversation over lunch with Thomas Edward Shaw, the author who played bass in the Monks. Shaw also led Copperhead (later Minnesoda), one of the first house bands at First Avenue in 1970, when it was called the Depot. (More on that in the future.) Here's an excerpt about the Monks in the mid-'60s:
We were playing the same club in Hamburg that the Beatles played [the Top Ten Club, in the early '60s]. We met the same people, the same woman [Oma] in the restroom who sold a lot of the drugs to keep them awake. We called her Grandma. The Beatles called her Ma. When you go into a restroom, this old woman sits on the table. You go take a piss, she cleans out the urinal after you. She's got aftershave, cologn. She made a living doing that.
When we'd go downstairs, she'd always say, "You guys, you're my boys." She would talk about the Beatles or us. Basically, it was a strange thing, in Hamburg, at the time. It was after the Beatles, and they were sort of the high-brow intellectuals. We were like the crude, rude Americans. So it was two different crowds. But we played there every night. It was packed. You couldn't walk in there. The man that owned it hated us. But we packed the club every night. That was like 500 people every night, seven nights a week. We never got a day off. You just felt like working stiffs. You see the same thing Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Long hours, just hammering it out.
Did you guys play originals at that time?
The Beatles crowd would come in, and we'd always do covers of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," stuff like that. Our audience was a harder crowd, so to speak. A little bit older and a little bit harder. We'd play that song very sarcastically, and the whole audience would sing, "I want to fuck your hand." They called us the anti-Beatles. We were like the anti-Christ. And when we put the record out, Polydor tried to distribute it in the States, and they said, "We wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole. Never never never. It'll never come to the States."
More Monks links:
The Monks perform November 19-21 as one of the headlining bands in The Wild Weekend V to be held in Benidorm, Spain.
Band-mates and fans remember Roger Johnston at the Monks message board: "I know that you'll set the beat for the spirits around you."
More discussion of the Monks and Roger Johnston at I Love Music: "Probably the greatest rumble-tribal-stomp drummer of his time outside of St. Mo Tucker herself."
Shaw's Monks biography: Black Monk Time: The Coming of the Anti-Beatle (1994)
Complete reading by Reverand Eric Hucke (Pastor at Bemidji United Methodist Church) at Roger Johnston�s funeral on November 11, 2004. (Scripture readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Romans Chapter 8):
It is perhaps more than appropriate that we honor Roger Johnston on this day, which is set aside to remember the veterans of America�s wars. Not that he was some kind of war hero--not at all.
But it was through his military service that he came into contact the the other servicemen who together became part of what was Roger�s greatest achievement in life. An achievement which lay unrecognized for some thirty years--an amazing story, really.
I first met Roger when I came to Bemidji to be the minister of the local Methodist Church five years ago, in 1999. It turned out that he was the custodian for our church and had been so, for a number of years prior to my arrival.
Shortly after I arrived, Roger, who otherwise seemed very shy and quiet spoken, came to me to ask for a couple of weeks off work.
I asked him to explain and he cautiously told me that he had been a member of a rock and roll band in the army in the 1960s in Germany and they were having a reunion.
I guess I�m not sure what he thought my response would be... since I was a minister, of course, and perhaps he was concerned that I would not approve, since he hardly knew me at that time.
Well, I was rather dumbfounded to discover that here it turned out that this rather reclusive guy had had a whole other life. Pretty amazing! And since I grew up in the heyday of rock and roll music in the 1960s, I really thought it was pretty cool. After that, Roger relaxed a bit, and told me the whole story about the Monks and how they had toured Germany and had now been rediscovered as the forerunner of the version of rock and roll known as "punk rock."
What is punk? Well, according to one definition, in the later 1970s and even today, the punk phenomenon expresses a whole-hearted rejection of prevailing values that extends beyond the qualities of its music. Early British punk fashion deliberately outraged propriety with the highly theatrical use of cosmetics and hairstyles: Eye makeup might cover half the face, hair might stand in spikes or be cut into a "Mohawk" or other severe shape, while the clothing typically modified existing objects for artistic effect: Pants and shirts were cut, torn, or wrapped with tape; safety pins were used as face piercing jewelry' a garbage bin line might become a dress. You get the picture.
But this came later. The Monks, it turns out, were in a sort of way among the very first to go in this direction. As one writer puts it:
Even though the Monks lasted roughly two years and recording only one album, it remains a piece that has influence a generation and started a movement.
What is most interesting, then, is that whereas they played for only a relatively short time and made one album they are now world famous. In fact, one of their fans has this to say:
It is one of the 10 best records ever made. Recorded by five Americans in Germany 1965/66. And they are absolutely in a category of their own. No one has ever played such bizarre music before or after. Heavy use of feeback, distorted bass, disharmonic organ and the crown of the creation, a banjo. The lyrics are weird too. The first seven songs are completely mind blowing, then it drops a bit.
This album isn�t so much ahead of its time as out of time entirely. When I first heard it, my first thought was "Who was this music made for?" It seems to be created without any thought to commercial viability whatsoever. And this was in the mid 1960s, when even the Beatles� mildly long haircuts were considered radical and freakish. The Monks redefined "freakish" before it was even properly defined in the first place! Out of it all they deserve a special place in rock and roll history--for their spirit as well as their originality.
He goes on:
The Monks are perhaps the most original of them all. NOBODY was writing pop songs with lyrics such as, "I hate you with a passion baby," in the mid-'60s... not even Bob Dylan. The Monks� world is their own... This music includes all the elements of the '60s beat music, but it�s put together so differently, like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, replaced with complete lunacy.
And here is one last comment from another reviewer:
Is it punk or psychedelia? Is it psychedelic punk? Whatever label you attempt to put on this album, it fails to describe just what is exactly going on in this sonic document from 1966. Whatever the case may be, this is highly original and enjoyable music. The Monks were the garage band from outside of time.
And here I am thinking: "This guy is the janitor of my church?" Wow! And furthermore, since it was all done in Germany, I, like many other American kids who grew up listening to rock-n-roll in the 60�s had never heard of Roger or the Monks. It blew me away.
And, of course, Roger was the drummer. But not like anything before. The Monks website describes Roger's drumming:
The backbone of the unit was the drummer, Roger Johnston. Initially a jazz influenced percussionist, he dispensed of complex fills and adhered strictly to the beat. This produced a primal effect, which was enhanced by his use of huge sticks. He was the band�s whipping post, laying down a thick bottom upon which they ran amok. To accentuate the aboriginal nature of the music, Johnston rarely used a cymbal. Whereas another percussionist would have used a cymbal flourish, he substituted vigorous thwacking on the tom-toms.
"I dogged it. I wanted it to sound as raw and thumping as possible," Johnston said in an interview. Indeed it does, invoking primeval nightmares. His drumming conjures images of Roman centurions pounding spikes into crosses at a crucifixion."
Well, you can�t keep up that pace forever. And the band broke up. Everyone went their own way. After going back to his native Texas, eventually Roger moved to Minnesota and then to Bemidji. About his life in between Germany and more recently Roger never said much... although we talked quite a bit at times. And I never asked.
At least when I knew him, he seemed to be a rather quiet sensitive guy, and as I discovered, a very gifted artist. He was kind of a loner, didn�t talk much, and was quite humble about the whole thing, really.
In fact, he seemed about as dumbfounded about the Monk revival as anyone. Although, underneath, I think he was rather pleased and a bit proud about his growing fame and notoriety. And at the same time it was kind of like he didn�t really want to go back there.
And, in a way, that is the dilemma for a lot of folks who lived through the '60s, that most troubled time.
Who can describe it? For it was exciting and frightening and optimistic and terribly pessimistic all at once.
And rock and roll music was so much a part of it. Back then, I think every kid who had any musical ability bought a guitar and tried to start a band.
And the music was the greatest.
In fact, back in the early '90s, I had a younger friend who, whenever he would get a littly uppity, I would say, "But, you know, the best Rock and Roll music ever was back in the 1960s," and he would have to agree with me and say, "You�re right." And, I am still right!
And Roger was there, right in the middle of it.
About his personal religious values, he never talked about them with me, and I never brought it up. I figured if there was a problem he would have mentioned it. And, after all, he was a church custodian!
I do know that he was a very intelligent and widely read person. He used to come in and borrow books from my office and we would talk about them--a wide range of books, from religion to philosophy to history.
One of his favorite authors was the great scientific writer and essasyist Loren Eiseley, also one of my favorites.
So I thought I would kind of wrap this up today by reading to you what is perhaps one of Eiseley�s most famous literary creations, not in its original form, but in an adapted version which has become widely known as The Star Thrower. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out, "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"
The young man paused, looked up, and replied, "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.
To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don�t throw them in, they�ll die."
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can�t possibly make a difference!"
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."
And in this tribute and our memorial to Roger Johnston, this day we must ask ourselves, "Did he make a difference?"
And the answer, of course, is becoming more obvious as time goes on: that he certainly did, along with his comrades, a pretty big difference, indeed.
He was a great drummer with a zest for life, a great friend, especially to those who knew him well, who, in spite of whatever shortcomings he had, made the very most of his gifts.
And he will be honored not only in this ceremony today, but next week in Spain, when the Monks perform at an international concert for fans of punk rock from around the world. His death has already been noted on the World Wide Web. It says:
Roger Johnston, drummer for the Monks, died Monday, November 8, 2004. It�s a sad day for rock and roll. Play on, Roger.
MINNESOTA SUR SEINE STARTS TONIGHT:
The Twin Cities are cool in Paris jazz circles, and anyone not hip to the fact now has seven nights to catch up. It all began with Michel Portal, a multi-instrumentalist father figure to the modern jazz scene in Europe, who visited Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2000 and came away inspired enough to record an album titled Minneapolis (Universal Music/Jazz France) with local bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland. Invitations followed across the Atlantic, and it's now to the point where the guys skronking in the basement of the Turf Club tonight have toured France extensively. Happy Apple make records with French producer Jean Rochard (and collaborate with saxophonist François Corneloup). And French bass clarinet player Denis Colin makes exciting new soul jazz with the Steeles, Wain McFarlane, and Gwen Matthews. All of the above perform here this week, some for the first time, at various venues and with music spanning funk to electronic avant-garde. The festival kicks off with French cellist Didier Petit and local rhythm section Davu Seru and Adam Linz, at the Alliance Francaise
113 N 1st St, Mpls.; 612.332.0436 (7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.), with a musical after-party hosted by J.T. Bates at the Clown Lounge (1601 University Ave., St. Paul). On Tuesday, Portal himself joins Anthony Cox and Dave King for a performance at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune (105 North First St., Minneapolis; 612.333.6200). For a complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.surseine.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.